Deposed Houston Astros manager AJ Hinch is currently out of baseball, but he is finally back on the record.
Since a completely unenlightening performance at the winter meetings, Hinch made his first public comments during a televised interview with veteran scribe Tom Verducci that aired Friday evening on MLB Network. In the previous interview, Hinch sweated in front of a gathered throng of reporters, unable to make substantive comments about Houston’s sign-stealing scandal because MLB had yet to complete its investigation.
Since then, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred dropped the hammer on Hinch and the Astros, suspending the manager and his boss, ex-Houston general manager Jeff Luhnow, for the entire 2020 season, as well as fining the franchise $5 million and stripping it of four draft picks. Hinch and Luhnow were singled out in Manfred’s report for failing to stop the scheme. Immediately after the commissioner announced the penalties, Astros owner Jim Crane followed with the dismissals of Hinch and Luhnow.
Hinch released an apologetic statement after being fired, saying, “While the evidence consistently showed I didn’t endorse or participate in the sign stealing practices, I failed to stop them and I am deeply sorry.” However, the MLB Network interview marked the first time Hinch faced a questioner in a public forum since the suspensions were handed out.
The scandal doesn’t show many signs of fading from the public eye even as teams across the league make their way to Florida and Arizona for spring training. Just prior to the airing of Verducci’s interview with Hinch, the Wall Street Journal published a report detailing the possible front-office origins of Houston’s system, known internally as “Codebreaker,” per the report. The findings detailed by Manfred were that the scheme was driven and executed at the player level.
Not surprisingly, during the interview, Hinch was diplomatic in a classically Hinch sort of way, with even his non-answers sounding like actual answers until you started to think about them. Hinch has been a media favorite for years because of his affability, accessibility and his willingness to give in-depth answers to pretty much any query thrown his way, all while also showing a willingness to be pointed when the occasion calls for it. As time has passed, Hinch has grown so confident in his dealings with the media that he has developed the often annoying habit of beginning to answer questions before they are finished being asked.
Hinch’s demeanor with Verducci was measured, as you’d expect. Prior to the airing of the interview, which took place at Hinch’s home outside Houston, Verducci described the atmosphere of the conversation as “anxious.” It’s easy to understand why. Still just 45 years old, Hinch ranks 17th all time in winning percentage (.558) among those who have managed at least 1,000 games in the majors. If he wants to build on that résumé — once his suspension expires at the end of the 2020 season — many wounds will have to be cauterized. Friday’s telecast was Hinch’s first tentative steps toward that healing process.
Here are some responses and takeaways from Hinch’s interview:
Question: Is the Astros’ 2017 title tainted?
Hinch: “It’s a fair question. I think everyone is going to have to draw their own conclusions. I hope over time, and the demonstration of the talent of this team and the players and the careers that are being had — we have some of the best players in the entire sport all together on the same team — I hope over time, it’s proven that it wasn’t. But I understand the question.”
Here Hinch is taking an objective approach to an issue that is almost entirely in the realm of the subjective. He’s certainly right in that in All-Star performers such as Alex Bregman, Jose Altuve, George Springer and Carlos Correa, the Astros have fielded one of the majors’ most talented teams in recent years. While Houston’s collective offensive performance spiked in many ways between the 2016 and 2017 seasons, most of those gains have been maintained in the seasons to follow. Because of that, Hinch is probably correct in suggesting that if Houston’s stars continue to perform at a high level, the context of their 2017 and early 2018 numbers will be largely drowned out.
However, this has never been a question about whether the Astros have had championship-caliber players. If public consensus about the Astros’ championship is that it is tainted, then it is tainted. That is not something that is within the control of Hinch, Luhnow or any of the players. They could win the next three World Series and the reality would not change. The only way we could really bring this question back into the objective is to replay the 2017 season all the way through the World Series without the sign stealing. Obviously, that is a physical impossibility. Thus, the taint cannot be removed. In many ways, that is the biggest penalty those associated with the 2017 Astros will have to endure.
Question: How much of an advantage did the Astros’ hitters gain from the scheme?
Hinch: “I can’t pinpoint what advantages or what happened or exactly what happened otherwise. But we did it to ourselves.”
The chorus of anti-Astros sentiment that has emerged over the past few months has blended into one overarching, one-word mantra: Cheaters. The anecdotally based condemnations of the Astros are generally logically solid. If you know what pitch is coming, then it’s a huge advantage. Opposing pitchers, such as Cleveland’s Mike Clevinger, have compared the Astros’ scheme to stealing food off their table. (A terrible analogy for any millionaire ballplayer to use, by the way, but that’s a side issue.) If the scheme didn’t work, the Astros wouldn’t have kept doing it for as long as they did. And so on.
Putting analytical meat on those anecdotal bones has proved to be largely elusive. Baseball Prospectus has tried more than once. So did our friends at FiveThirtyEight. Fangraphs has taken multiple stabs at it, including a piece that came out Friday. Ben Lindbergh of the Ringer also dug in. The cottage industry that has emerged around the Astros’ scandal got a second wind recently when a tech-savvy Houston fan published a database of every documented instance of trashcan banging. The data is compelling but also inconclusive.
No satisfactory consensus has emerged from these studies. Did it help? Probably, at least some of the time. Some players were helped more than others, and at the same time some opponents were hurt more than others. At times, the system probably hurt the Astros. The net effect might have largely been negligible to nonexistent. At the very least, it might be impossible to ever truly suss out the effects of the scheme from other factors. Indeed, Manfred’s report included the passage, “At some point during the 2018 season, the Astros stopped using the replay review room to decode signs because the players no longer believed it was effective.”
What seems more clear is that regardless of whether the scheme helped Houston, the talent of the hitters in question was at a level where the ham-handed system was probably not necessary in the first place. That might be the biggest misfortune of all of this — how unnecessary it all was. So Hinch is right on both counts — it’s hard to pinpoint the advantages, or lack thereof. But that we’re asking these questions at all is entirely on the Astros.
Question: How do you feel about a former player of yours, Mike Fiers, exposing the sign-stealing scheme publicly, which ostensibly led to your suspension and dismissal?
Hinch: “I haven’t spent a lot of time focusing on the emotional side of the reaction to Mike telling the story and getting this message out. I wish I would have had an environment and a culture that was better for him to have come to me in real [time]. I wish I could have done better, to maybe get that nudge to make better leadership decisions. I focus on that. I understand that there are going to be people on both sides of the argument about what should have happened. But I haven’t talked to Mike since 2018, 2019, every time you play somebody.”
Hinch’s response to Verducci’s question about Fiers is really the encapsulation of the entire conversation. One of the post-penalty debates on social media has been about the role of Fiers in breaking baseball’s time-honored code of silence and informing on his former teammates. It would have been easy for Hinch to have at least qualified his answer with a “the clubhouse is a sacred place” comment. He did not, instead turning the focus back on himself.
The cynical among us might say Hinch is playing up the accountability angle because he wants to get back into the game when his suspension is over. No one can know for sure what role that would have played. However, Hinch’s contrition came across as sincere, even if it remains somewhat hard to understand why he felt strongly enough about his team’s escapades to twice destroy the monitor they were using to execute their scheme yet never called a team meeting to draw some firm lines about how his team went about its business.
Of course, Hinch subtlety explained his inaction in 2017 multiple times by saying that his confidence as a leader then was not what it is now, in 2019. Whether or not those who do the hiring in baseball see that as true will go a long way in determining his career prospects after the end of the coming season.
Question: Do you want to manage a big league team again? Will you get the chance?
Hinch: “I do [want to manage again]. It’s up to other people to determine whether I’m the right fit, but I love managing. I love players. I love the competition. What I’ve learned about myself over the last few years of doing it is that player-manager relationship, that coach-manager relationship, the front office; I love being in that center hubcap of that wheel that makes it all go around. That comes with a lot of responsibility. I’ve been proud of how I’ve handled it. I’m not proud of talking about the issues in 2017 with the sign stealing, but I’m not going to let that deter me from my hope and desire to have a long career in Major League Baseball doing what I love.”
Hinch’s credentials as a big league skipper were impeccable. He has won at a high level that included two pennants and a World Series. He often has been used as the prototypical example of the 21st century manager because of his skills with the media, ability to connect with younger players and understanding of analytics. During the 2019 season, the Astros became the first team never to order an intentional walk, which speaks to Hinch’s statistical bent. None of this is in question. Until the scandal broke, Hinch’s reputation in the game was strong, even as the face of a franchise that hasn’t been the most popular within the industry. During the winter meetings, Hinch said, “My relationships in baseball are still strong.”
Of course, that was before he was suspended and fired. The formula for Hinch going forward is simple: Does the value he brings as a top-level dugout and clubhouse manager outweigh the public relations baggage that will invariably come from hiring him? He does have many friends in the game, such as Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, whose team fell to Houston in the 2017 World Series. Mets general manager Brodie Van Wagenen is a close friend and former roommate while the two were at Stanford.
That Hinch didn’t plan, execute or condone his players’ behavior are all points in his favor. However, for all his emphasis on leadership, Hinch didn’t provide it when it was most needed. He stated a few times during the interview that he’s a better leader now than he was in 2017, so he’s cognizant of that disconnect. The guess here is that Hinch will get another shot at running a club. It might not be his next gig, though. He might have to serve as a bench coach or even spend a year working with a front office. But it doesn’t feel as if the stain on Hinch’s reputation is going to be a permanent deal breaker.
Question: I know the commissioner’s office looked into this and they determined that there was nothing to it. Can you assure us that there were no buzzers or anything like that being used [in 2019]?
Hinch: “We got investigated for three months. The commissioner’s office did as thorough of an investigation as anyone could imagine was possible. I knew you mentioned about the emails and the texts and the messages [examined during the investigation] and I believe it.”
That was Hinch’s answer and some took to social media afterward to paint it as a non-denial. That’s what happens on social media. The bottom line is that the issue was investigated and the commissioner’s report didn’t find anything to it. At some point, don’t we have to believe what those in charge are telling us?